home | history

More Ideology, to Darwin and Spencer

Economic development in the 1800s was part of a new age of science. Advances in medicine and dentistry was a part of it, including narcotics to reduce pain. In 1846 the first amputation of a limb – a leg – was performed under anesthesia. In Britain in 1848 the Public Health Act became law. Public health policies spread to the United States, France and Germany. And the work of Louis Pasteur (1822-95) extended the understanding of microbiology and benefits of vaccination and pasteurization.

It was a new age of empirical data, consulting charts and statistics, but not all of it was sound. The optimistic Frenchman, Auguste Comte (1798-1857) believed he could connect all that was knowable into a comprehensive study of society. He called it Sociology. He was a colleague of the utopian thinker Saint-Simon. Like Saint-Simon, Compte was too optimistic. Measuring social phenomena would produce no blueprint for action accepted widely enough to be politically effective. Sociologists into the 20th century would view Compte as having entertained ideas that were eccentric and unscientific.

There was more respect for the down-to-earth study called geology — although it too stirred up controversy. In 1785, James Hutton presented a paper to the Royal Society of Edinburgh that explained his theory that the Earth was old enough for mountains to be eroded, sediments to form new rocks at the bottom of the sea, and for these rocks rise to dry land. In conflict with those who held to Genesis as a source of literal truth, he suggested that the earth might be something like a million years old.

Hutton was to be referred to as the Father of Modern Geology. He was followed by Charles Lyell, whose book Elements of Geology, was published in 1838. Contrary to Genesis, Lyell mentioned that it took 6,000 years for just one inch of limestone to build.

Naturalists (biologists) noticed Lyell's work, and one of them was a 21-year-old Englishman collecting beetles in the Americas: Charles Darwin. Darwin wondered about the variations in plants and creatures he had been observing on the Galapagos Islands. Biological evolution as an idea had been around at least since the mid-1700s. There had been speculation that creatures had been reproducing without making perfect copies of themselves and that this change might eventually produce a new group of individuals that could interbreed only with each other (the definition of a species). And there was the idea that all warm-blooded animals might have descended from a single microorganism.

From 1809 there had been the theory by a French biologist, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck that connected biological evolution with environmental influences (as with trees that developed in association with climate — broadleaves in the tropics, needles where winters were icy). Darwin was aware of Lamarck's theory. Darwin added to Lamarck's evolution what he called "natural selection." He built on the fact that individuals within a population of creatures vary significantly from one another and the fact that much of this variation is heritable. He observed that individuals less suited to the environment are less likely to survive and less likely to reproduce and that individuals more suited to the environment are more likely to survive and more likely to reproduce and leave their heritable traits to future generations.

Darwin didn't rush his work into publication. After a couple of decades another biologist, Alfred Russel Wallace, sent Darwin his work. It was close to Darwin's, pushing Darwin to publish the following year. The book's full title: On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.

Public debates followed, with ridicule from people who associated Darwin's theory with humans evolving from monkeys or apes rather than a matter of common ancestors. For some people it was easier to imagine the creation of species as sudden and miraculous than it was to imagine biological developments across millions of years. Traditionalists wanted to think of humanity as having been created directly by God. Some other persons of faith instead opted for the view of God's intentions behind evolution's processes.

Much information was to become available regarding evolution after Darwin passed. The word "genetics" was not coined until 1905 — 23 years after Darwin's death. Darwin could not have known the depth of information that the study of genetics was to provide in understanding evolution. Nor could he have known what the Smithsonian calls the "broad and varied family tree of ancestral humans." But he would be remembered for having made a contribution.

Meanwhile, there was the English philosopher, biologist and sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903). He had been an evolutionist in agreement with Lamarck (without Darwin's theory of natural selection) and he wrote of organisms progressing from simple to more complex forms, describing this as progressive. After reading Darwin's book he coined the expression "survival of the fittest." (Darwin has been described as employing Spencer's phrase in later editions of his book.) Although the word "sociology" was created by Compte, Spencer was the first to use the word in the title of a book. He too believed that science could uncover laws that explained social life. And he aimed to show that natural laws led inexorably to progress. He claimed the physical world, including the biological world, and human societ, was a progressive development connected to evolution.

A part of this, according to Spencer, was knowledge, of which there were two kinds: knowledge gained by the individual and knowledge gained by one's race. The latter he described as intuition. This was unconscious inherited experience.

Spencer believed that human behavior was primarily organized toward self-preservation. He recognized competition — as in nature being red in tooth and claw — a line by Alfred Lord Tennyson in 1850. Spencer's "survival of the fittest" suited those inclined to support swagger and domination in international affairs. In the extreme, his "survival of the fittest" would become an excuse for genocide.

Spencer's views fit with the free-wheeling capitalism of his day. He believed in competition unfettered by government interference. He was opposed to any interference in economic matters by the state. He was anti-regulation (It was for the buyer to be wary and to inquire but without benefit of information from regulators.) He was opposed to factory inspections. He opposed various labor laws or the state providing any kind of welfare. And the state, he believed, should not be involved in education. It was an extreme individualism that carried the assumption that people should be considered unfit if they were unable to rise from poverty by themselves alone.

Spencer viewed his political beliefs as conforming to nature, human freedom, and as morality. And with this he was successful. He would be described by more than one observer as "the single most famous European intellectual in the closing decades of the 1800s". Wikipedia attempts a summary:

The basis for Spencer's appeal to many of his generation was that he appeared to offer a ready-made system of belief which could substitute for conventional religious faith at a time when orthodox creeds were crumbling under the advances of modern science.

But into the 21st century, evidence of Spencer's progess in human biological development is not much in evidence. The social interactions that the fittest were supposed to have survived and the less fit not (part of a progress of all things), appears not to have been working. Spencer's fittest principle was working however among bacteria. Introduction of a new drug produced bacteria (the most fit) that could survive its new environment.


PLEASE CONTINUE: Impulse to empire in North and West Africa, 1830-80

I welcome your opinions and help.

Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.